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Screenwriter Lou Berney aims to make a name in crime fiction with debut novel, 'Gutshot Straight'



What's that saying? When life gives you a Writers Guild of America strike, make lemonade? Or something like that.

Lou Berney's batch of lemonade hit shelves yesterday in the form of his debut novel, "Gutshot Straight." The Oklahoma City resident earns his living as a Hollywood screenwriter. Although none of his works have been produced yet, one can make bank off script sales and options without ever seeing his credit on-screen. That's Berney, for now.

But when the compensation-hungry WGA went on strike Nov. 5, 2007, Berney was prohibited from doing that which puts food on his table: writing screenplays.

"The strike shut me down," he said. "Then I realized, this is a great opportunity for me to get back to what I love doing most, which is fiction writing."

With a story already in mind, he got to work on that lemonade. Three months later, "Gutshot Straight" was finished. Instead of 10 cents a cup, it'll cost you $24.99, which can be forked over when Berney signs copies Tuesday night at Full Circle Bookstore.

"I just dove into it. It was such a refreshing change of pace from screenwriting, and went much more quickly and easily than I thought it would," Berney said.

The crime caper concerns one Charles "Shake" Bouchon, who faces a career crisis once he's released from a three-year stint in prison for grand theft auto " namely, what's he qualified to do but very bad things? He takes a delivery job. It's not an ongoing position, but a one-time gig, transporting a young woman to a hulking club owner known as The Whale. As happens in such novels " especially with villains named after massive marine mammals " things don't go exactly as planned. Proverbial high jinks ensue.

Originally, Berney conceived "Gutshot" for film, but admits its natural home is on the printed page.

"It just never was the kind of screenplay that was commercially mainstream enough to go out with. It's not the kind of movie that Hollywood makes a lot of, unfortunately. It's not a tentpole action movie based on a comic book," he said. "Also, there was just too much in my head to fit into 120 pages. It was really character-driven to a degree, and to give these characters their due, I had to do it as novel."

Already, "Gutshot" has received favorable reviews and comparisons to Elmore Leonard, author of such crime classics as "Out of Sight," "Get Shorty" and "Rum Punch." And that's just fine with Berney.

"If anyone ever puts me in the same room as Elmore, I'm thrilled," he said. "He's probably the first writer I ever read who opened so-called 'genre writing' to me and made me realize it can be just as good as so-called 'literary writing,' and often better. Because in grad school, there's kind of a snobbishness around there. There's literary and there's genre, and never the twain shall meet.

"That's totally wrong. There's good writing and there's bad writing, and a lot of great writing right now is genre."

Berney acknowledged that writing scripts presents its own set of challenges versus writing books, but that plying his trade in both formats is to his ultimate benefit. The Tinseltown side of him takes to the page as "a ruthless kind of cutter," while the novelist half is prone to "go off on tangents."

"It's almost like having a split personality. One part of me likes writing screenplays and the other part likes writing novels — and the two don't get along very well, but they do begrudgingly give each other notes, which is where the advantage comes in," he said. "I love novel writing even more, because it's my natural voice. I think I never get sick of either of them, because I can flip back and forth."

Like Hollywood, the publishing world loves franchises. And while Berney didn't initially see "Gutshot Straight" as having sequel potential, he's since come around.

"When this ended, I really started missing my characters," he said.

He said a follow-up currently exists in his head, so the idea of having "Gutshot" spawn a series appeals to him. Rest assured, he'll get to it soon, so expect your Dixie cup to be refilled.

"I try never to take any time off," Berney said, "because it's too hard to start back up." Rod Lott

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